SALT LAKE CITY — Doctors are becoming increasingly encouraged with an implant that's eliminating tremors from Parkinson's disease. Three Salt Lake hospitals have been doing what is called "deep brain stimulation" for some time now, and the track record looks impressive.
During our visit we watched as Reggie Wells talked with Intermountain Medical Center neurosurgeon Peter Maughan. In the clinic checkup, Wells had no visible signs of shaking. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease seven years ago. Tremors started on his left side, and then progressed to the right arm and hand.
"The amount of shaking was disturbing to me," Wells recalled. "I couldn't hold things that were delicate."
He said the tremors were starting to interfere with his work and the presentations he needed to give while traveling for his company.
Walking was stressful, too. "I couldn't lift my feet sometimes. I would feel like I was wearing concrete shoes," he said.
But that was then.
Dr. Maughan and his colleagues at IMC implanted a small pacemaker-like device just under the skin in Wells' chest. Small under skin wires were then fed up the back of the neck to an entry point at the front of his skull. Inside, implanted electrodes now stimulate specific areas of his brain, interrupting the abnormal signals that produce the tremors.
"It's not a cure for the disease but you can program the device, changing the location or strength of the stimulation to overcome some of the symptoms,” Maughan said. “It's not for every patient but when people have progressive symptoms that are not controlled with medicine, or if the medicines are causing more side effects, overriding the benefits of treatment — then the implant is definitely worth considering."
The electrical stimulation in volts is so small, Wells never feels anything.
"I don't notice it," he said. "We're talking about mini volts, which are measured as thousandths of a volt."
If you could picture Wells before, with hands and arms shaking, but see him now, there is a significant difference. His outstretched hands are rock steady.
At home, in his basement man cave, Wells builds from scratch radio controlled model planes. With Parkinson's, he couldn't handle the delicate work anymore, but now he can.
And walking? We watched as he ran up and down the stairs with ease — something he thought he would never do again.
In addition to Parkinson's disease, researchers are also testing deep brain stimulation as a way to possibly treat depression, Tourette's syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorders.
"The implants are being tried," Maughan said. "Though they haven't proven yet to be clinically effective, we believe they'll work eventually — once neurosurgeons work out the specific targets for those conditions."